Lords should review HE bill

December 1, 2016

As academics from leading universities, we are concerned about the implications of the Higher Education and Research Bill. We worry that it will reduce the quality of what is a world-leading sector for our economy and society.

The government claims that this bill is necessary to ensure that university courses provide students with “value for money”, but we disagree for the following reasons:

1. The bill would transform higher education into a system that is largely determined by market forces at the expense of quality. By weakening the conditions to be met by new “providers” to acquire degree awarding powers and university title, the bill seeks to expand the number of competitors to include one-subject, teaching-only, “for-profit” organisations. As has happened in other countries, this is bound to lead to a reduction in quality. This risks putting off international students from attending what they currently view as a globally competitive system and it also risks British students questioning the value of their degrees.

2. The regulatory body it creates for teaching (the Office for Students) would carry many conflicting responsibilities, such as control of university income through limiting fees, maintaining teaching standards, validation of new providers and widening participation. Such an unwieldy organisation will be unable to focus on what is most important: the quality of teaching and research. We believe that the responsibility for quality assurance and the validation of courses should be transferred to an independent body.

3. By replacing the Privy Council’s role, the bill gives the government unprecedented powers to override the Royal Charter status of universities and research councils, which will undermine academic freedom. Such sweeping changes make no sense. The government argues that it would never intervene in ways that would restrict freedom. So why do they insist on such powers?

4. The system of “rating” universities established in the bill – where a set proportion of universities will be labelled as failing regardless of actual performance – will jeopardise the international reputation of British higher education. It will create the impression that some universities are failing when they are not. International students will be put off from applying to apparently failing institutions and British students will question whether their degree is going to be worth anything to future employers.

We believe this bill could undermine the quality of our universities. We respectfully urge the members of the Lords to take a close look at this bill as it comes to the House for a second reading on 6 December and to committee stage.

On behalf of the 600 members of the Council for the Defence of British Universities:

Dorothy Bishop
University of Oxford

Gordon Campbell
University of Leicester

T.J. Horder
University of Oxford

Howard Hotson
University of Oxford

Stephen Huggett
Plymouth University

David Midgley
University of Cambridge

Anne Sheppard
Royal Holloway, University of London

Sherrill Stroschein
University College London

Rowan Tomlinson
University of Bristol

David Wolton

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